All summer long PCA reviews pop culture’s greatest summer films…reminding you that the world’s best films are not in the “New Release” section at your local Blockbuster.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) - For thousands of kids like me, the idea of summer camp was pure hell. In fact, you could almost say that it could be murder. Sleeping out doors, mosquitoes and other random bugs, the fear of being eaten by a bear and, even worse, the obligatory bullies were what summer camp was really about for lots of kids. Lets face it…I was the nerdy, unpopular kid who all the pranks were played on. There was one in every cabin. How was that fun? Perhaps the collective anxieties from others that hated summer camp as much as I did is why an entire industry of slasher/camp films became so popular in the 1980’s. Beginning with Friday the 13th, films featuring dead kids and summer fun became a staple of the horror genre as film makers brought their tortured collective memories of weeks wasted at camp to the big screen in an extreme vision of horror. Yet, why most of these films were just watered downed copy cats of Friday the 13th, Robert Hitizick’s cult classic Sleepaway Camp has enough suspense, kitsch, scares and twists of its own to put it above all the others in the niche summer slasher genre, making it a classic amongst fans and collectors of 80’s horror.
Boy, does Ricky Thomas love to go to camp! It’s a chance to get away from his crazy assed mother for a few weeks of swimming, canoeing, friends and, most importantly, girls. However, this year Ricky had a new responsibility at camp. He’s bringing his emotionally disturbed cousin Angela along with him. Orphaned in a boating accident eight years earlier, Angela is a strange girl who doesn’t participate in activities, doesn’t eat, rarely talks to anyone, isn’t making friends and looks like she’s in a trance most of the time. Instinctively protective of his cousin, Ricky tries not to let her craziness stop his fun, but Angela’s basic strangeness, obviously, attracts bullies, including some of the older boys at camp, Ricky’s ex-girlfriend Judy, a malicious camp counselor and a pedophile cook. However, something strange is happening at Camp Arawak. Seems that anybody who does Angela wrong becomes the victims of terrible “accidents” ranging from being boiled alive in a pot of hot water, to being stung to death by a swarm of bees and, of course, the obligatory slashed in the shower scenario. As camp owner Mel tries to cover up the “accidents” in an attempt to not alarm the parents who send their kids to camp, the body count of dead campers and staff keeps rising. Is it that oblivious that Angela is slaying her enemies, or could it be someone else? Is it Ricky in an attempt to protect his cousin? Is it Paul, who has a crush on the strange girl? Is it Judy trying to frame her rival? Could it be one of the other councilors, or campers, or something more sinister? One thing is for sure, there are a lot of secrets at Camp Amarak and the biggest secret of all will be sure to shock viewers. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out you’ll find out that nothing is quite what it seems at Sleepaway Camp.
Sleepaway Camp is one of those films that treads a fine line between crap and genius, making it a low budget masterpiece. The acting is questionable, the concept is unoriginal, the film is grainy, the editing is amateurish and the scares, for the most part, aren’t really that scary. But that doesn’t make Sleepaway Camp any less appealing. The film has a nostalgic kitsch factor, especially for kids that grew up in the 1980s. Oh man – the producers were really able to capture exactly what the 1980’s looked like. You want to show your kids what the decade looked like? Show them this film (if they can handle it of course). The clothes, the hair, the music, the phrases. It’s as if they allowed the kids in the film to dress and talk how they really would, instead of making them look and sound like someone “thought” kids should act and look. Furthermore it’s always refreshing to watch a movie about teenagers where the kids actually look like teenagers. Theres no models in this one. The kids are gawky and awkward and relatively normal looking. It’s like watching Degrassi Junior High, but without the morality play and a much higher body count. While watching the film you even see a thing or two you might have forgotten from your childhood. Do you remember when kids flipped the bird with a quick, underhand swing? I totally did until a group of kids were seen doing it behind Mel’s back after the water balloon fight. Forget John Hughes films. Sleepaway Camp is what the 1980’s really looked like. Take it from a guy who was actually there.
One of the true travesties of Sleepaway Camp is that none of the kids from the film really went on to do anything beyond it. These kids are all pretty fun to watch and some of them possibly could have had decent careers in film or television. Jonathan Tierson, in the role of protective cousin Ricky, has a spunky quality that could have made him a successful teen actor and a potential heartthrob in the Ricky Schroder/Adam Rich kind of way. Karen Fields, who plays bad girl and camp “slut” Judy is a pretty girl, and had a sort of sly and sinister quality about her. Although one of the films weakest actresses, some of her sneaky and twisted smiles are priceless. But of course the real star of the film is Felissa Rose in the role of Angela. Disturbed, sad and pitiful, the viewer isn’t sure to feel sorry for, or fear, Angela throughout the movie. Although Felissa Rose shows little acting range throughout the majority of the film, you regain your faith in her in the final moments of the film and, whoa man, that’s a performance you’ll never forget. I wish I could go more into the films conclusion, which should honestly be one of the most iconic horror film endings of all time, but I don’t want to give away the shocks or surprises for people who haven’t seen the film. But let me tell you that even as the shrewdest film viewer, even when I thought I had this film figured out I really didn’t. I just sat their with my mouth wide open thinking “Did they just totally do that? Holy crap! That is so cool!” With Sleepaway Camp being Felissa Roses’ first film, at age seventeen she began formal theatrical traning at New York’s Lee Strasberg Institute, and became a staple of the New York Broadway and off-Broadway circuit. Yet, despite a successful stage career, Felissa Rose has once again become a staple in low budget horror films in the last decade due to her cult stardom from Sleepaway Camp. Her performance in this film is so memorable that she can never escape the tortured mind of Angela.
A cult favorite on VHS that became a staple at slumber parties and adolescent movie nights during the 1980’s, Sleepaway Camp has found its own cult following amongst fans. Due to it’s relatively tame content, for many children of the 80’s, Sleepaway Camp was the first horror film that they ever saw. As a result a few sequels were developed by the end of the decade, although most of them were direct to video and none of the original stars were involved in the film (lets face it – most of the original cast don’t make it out of this film alive). However, Robert Hitizick is rumored to be returning to Sleepaway Camp with a new direct to DVD film titled Sleepaway Camp Reunion, in which key members of the original cast will be reprising the roles of the characters they originally played. It’ll be interesting to see Hitizck’s follow up over thirty years after the original, and to see what happened to the kids who survived the horror of Camp Amarak.
Camp is hell, but hell has never been as fun or shocking as it is at Sleepaway Camp. Join Angela and Ricky in a timewarp back to the 1980’s for fun and murder in the woods of Camp Arawak this summer. Don’t forget to bring bug repellent.